Folk Music is Owned by Who?

folk music is owned by whom

Folk music refers to any music that has been passed down orally and not performed by professional musicians. It’s a form of popular culture with often political, social or environmental undertones.

Music of this genre often develops over time into numerous variants, as it is passed along through a community and cannot be replicated word-for-word or note for note.


Copyright is a legal right that safeguards original works of authorship, such as musical compositions. These rights can be granted to the creator or someone they designate as their legal right holder – this could be an individual, group of people, or company.

Copyright protection applies only to original works that demonstrate creativity and are judged “original” by a court of law, according to the type of work.

Traditional folk music is typically classified as Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs), which belong to all members of a local community. TCEs are composed of customary songs and tunes passed orally down through generations within one region over many generations.

Some TCEs are based on ancient materials written or recorded before the modern era, or have been rediscovered and published for the first time. Determining who originated these types of works can be challenging; thus, self-proclaimed authors often claim ownership even if they did not create them.

Traditional songs and their arrangements often fall under copyright protection, though this is less common than for individual pieces. This is because a song can be composed by one person and then arranged by another, leaving no way of distinguishing which parts were composed by its original composer and which by another artist.

Folk music that is not protected by copyright will become public domain after its term has elapsed. This means you can freely use it, provided you give credit to its owner and adhere to cultural and ethical norms surrounding its use.

If you have any queries about copyright, or need help with a particular case, please do not hesitate to reach out to the Wallace Center staff. We offer advice and support on all matters involving copyright and copyright law but unfortunately cannot represent you in legal proceedings.


When performing live folk music – whether it be a song, instrumental piece or even just singing at a dance session – you are likely required to obtain a license from the copyright holders. Without one or getting the right type of license, performers who created the original song could claim damages against you.

In the UK, there are two primary music rights organisations: Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) and Performing Right Society (PRS). PPL represents record companies while PRS represents musicians and composers.

A music license is a permission granted by the rights holder for specific uses, usually at an agreed-upon fee. This way, they can monetize their work without having to sell physical products or services.

The legal landscape surrounding music licensing is intricate, and there are various license types that can be granted to users depending on how a song will be used, how it’s included in an audio recording, where it will be played, and the artist or publisher’s experience.

Licenses for performing rights are usually acquired by signing up with a performing rights organization (PRO). These groups consist of songwriters, composers and publishers who have chosen to join in order to increase their royalty income from works as well as receive accurate communication about the music they create.

Many of these organizations have reciprocal agreements with other PROs around the world. These international partnerships allow musicians to be represented by PROs that possess the most extensive repertoires of songs in their home countries.

However, these international relationships can be costly and challenging to navigate. That is why PROs are usually founded and run by professionals from the music industry who possess expertise in negotiation and communicating effectively with foreign copyright holders.

In the United States, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are the leading performing rights organizations. Not only do these entities license works from their members, but they also represent a considerable number of foreign writers and publishers.


If you plan to publish or perform a songbook, permission from its author may be required. Singer-songwriters in folk music communities tend to be willing to license use at reasonable fees; large music corporations on the other hand can be difficult to license songs from and fees involved can be prohibitive.

In the United States, copyright law protects most creative works published after 1923. However, any work produced before 1925 or for which the copyright was not renewed remains in the public domain.

Many songs on this website are in the public domain, but it is essential to be aware of this before using them. If you want to print a book of folk songs, for example, permission must be obtained from either the author of the original song and/or any publisher with rights to those songs.

Transcriptions of song lyrics must follow the same regulations as if the author were not a singer or writer in the folk tradition, you need permission from the publisher who owns rights to the song. Quotations from recordings containing song lyrics also need permission unless they fall within the public domain.

If you want to quote a song lyric from an existing piece of music, permission from a music rights database may be required. This is because song lyrics are copyrighted.

Without permission, using a song from an existing work can be considered illegal and may lead to legal action. Thus, it’s vital that you secure permission before beginning any project – especially one with significant scope – especially for smaller works.

Typically, permission is granted for a set period of time or on an individual basis – this is commonly referred to as the “term.” Additionally, permission agreements usually specify the geographic area in which you can utilize the material.

If you are uncertain of the copyright status of a song, consult with either a lawyer or the music rights database (resources section). It would also be beneficial to reach out to the author of the song in order to confirm whether or not they have rights to use it.

Public Domain

The public domain is a legal concept that permits creative works to be used without restriction. This type of creation includes literary, musical and visual arts works as well as audio/video recordings and computer software programs.

This concept of allowing the public to own works dates back to ancient Rome and was codified in America with the Copyright Act of 1790. This system allowed creators to retain control over their creations while giving others permission to share them, encouraging creativity and cutting costs for all.

Over the centuries, the concept of public domain has been applied to a variety of works. For instance, it has allowed free access to literature for children and films for those on low incomes.

Another popular use of the public domain is to make music accessible in digital format. This is accomplished through online musical archives like Musopen, which gathers collections of classical music that has fallen into the public domain and makes them available for download or distribution.

In addition to educational purposes, the public domain serves as a repository of cultural heritage for everyone to enjoy. For instance, 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead serves as an excellent example of how this can be done: preserve cultural heritage while making it accessible to new viewers.

The public domain can be an excellent source of inspiration for musicians and artists, but it’s essential to remember that copyright laws in the United States still apply to songs and other creative work.

Though there are exceptions to this rule, if you do not have the author’s consent or are using something which has already expired copyright, it is imperative to confirm its status with its rights holders.

Folk music generally belongs to the public domain. A few exceptions exist where original authors have refused to grant their rights away, often because they feel that a song’s message or significance should be shared freely.